Why Does the Linux Desktop So Lack Proprietary Apps?

Monday Jun 13th 2011 by Matt Hartley

The Linux desktop could benefit from certain Microsoft and Adobe applications, plus a few popular mainstream video game titles.

Over the past few years, I've watched the progress of the Linux desktop continue to evolve beyond my wildest expectations. I've smiled with satisfaction as the Linux kernel and various distribution developers kept up with their proprietary software developer counterparts – and in some cases surpassed them.

Yet despite all this success, it seems like adoption of proprietary software on the desktop Linux platform remains spotty at best.

What's interesting about this situation is that Linux on the desktop is ripe with opportunity for proprietary vendors looking to sell their wares. Even forgoing the Ubuntu Software Center, there's enough users among other competing desktops alone to attract proprietary vendors to produce a Linux-specific software product.

So what exactly is the problem then? What's the hold up?

In this article, I'll be highlighting my own theories and relate personal experiences I've had using proprietary software with desktop Linux over the years. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the Comments section below.

The demand is clear

Even if you believe that proprietary software is something to be avoided, you have to admit that it would be nice to have select closed-source applications on the Linux desktop. Like certain Microsoft products or a couple of well-known Adobe applications, plus a few popular mainstream video game titles.

I wouldn't say that we cant live without these software options, I'm merely questioning the wisdom of the proprietary software world continuing to ignore us.

Now before I go any further, allow me to point out the following. First of all, I realize there are likely business and technological hurdles preventing any of the above software titles from becoming available anytime soon. That being said, there is still software functionality that is not adequately being addressed for the Linux desktop.

Somewhere along the line we need to find a way to meet in the middle and offer practical solutions for the end-user. Even if you're among those who say this is a moot point, I see countless forums filled with people who adamantly seek a solution.

Function, not platform

Like many Linux enthusiasts, users such as myself use Linux on our desktops because of the overall experience it provides. Yet even with the positive experience, there are times where the lack of proprietary software creates a circumstance where I must boot into a secondary OS just to finish a given task.

It's extremely rare, but it does happen. This has me wondering why we're not seeing a bigger push for software vendors to get their proprietary software goods into the Linux space. Not just in the enterprise realm, but for task-oriented concepts as well.

Speaking for myself, I'd like to live in a world where I'm able to simply use the software I like without having to give a lot of thought to which platform is running at the moment. A lofty wish perhaps, but the idea is becoming more mainstream as web apps continue to take hold throughout the world.

But as I said before, there are likely technological restrictions that prevent many of those missing Adobe and Microsoft applications from...wait a second here. Microsoft already offers their Office suite on the Web and last time I checked, it runs great from Firefox on Linux!

Well, I guess that's one application suite down, with only software from Adobe and Intuit left to go.

Open source exclusively

Perhaps I'm in a unique situation because I work from home, but I've found that there is nothing compelling me to seek proprietary software at this point in my life. On the flip side, I've been known to hire out work for projects needing Adobe After Effects or even advanced Photoshop work.

Since I'm not that great with either of these two programs, I found it's just easier to have someone else handle this type of work for me. This approach has allowed me the luxury to not worry about "how to make a Windows application run" or whether I'll need WINE or VMWare installed. Basically I've managed to free myself from this kind of hassle. Sadly though, many others may not be so lucky.

For example, photographers will be among the first to tell you that GIMP is a sorry replacement for Photoshop. Even if GIMP is perceived to be fantastic for my needs, professionals tend to feel differently.

The same can be said about video editing software. I'm right at home with OpenShot, Kdenlive, and to a lesser extent, Cinelerra. But professionals working on video projects are not amused upon discovering the lack of After Effects and other pro tools. But what might surprise you is that movie studios have used Linux for years now. So unlike professionals within the other aspects of the image arts, it seems the movie industry has a dirty little secret.

Proprietary Linux software making movies

Movie studios have been known to use Linux for animation rendering. In this same spirit, you can even download Red Hat packages of Maya> to try your hand at the creative process! As a matter of fact, DreamWorks Animation used Maya on Linux for their 3D modeling of Shrek 3.

And what was the result? Well, neither the Linux or the non-Linux universe exploded or ended abruptly. Apparently all the hot air about the dangers of proprietary software in the Linux space didn't manage to do anything to DreamWorks, other than produce a very popular movie. And it wasn't the first. Linux rendering tools were also used to create the movie Titanic as well. That render-farm used for the Titanic movie dates back to 1997.

So why do we as users fight this natural blend of the two software worlds with so much of our energy in the "name of freedom?" It seems to me that all we're doing is living under a glass globe, afraid to venture out into a world where anything is possible.

Considering the problem that many software patents are making duplication in the open source space difficult, proprietary software for some "specialized tasks" may be the only way to go at the moment.

Looking to an open future

For those video editors among you willing to roll up your sleeves and attempt to try something new, I do have some open source application suggestions that might help you out. Cinefx, a professional grade media player. Ramen is a new node-based image compositor. Ramen looks to be very promising, despite being under heavy development.

There is also Cinepaint, with its helpful Photoshop-like control for images. And lastly, there's Blender. Speaking honestly, I'd say that between Blender and Cinelerra, you'll find more than enough functionality even with Adobe thumbing their noses at the Linux community. Let's face it, outside of Flash, Adobe doesn't and likely will never support Linux users.

Final thoughts

Here are some things to keep in mind. First, locking yourself into a closed source situation is absolutely dangerous for your company. If the company behind your software goes out of business, you could be in real trouble with what is called vendor lock-in. Obviously this isn't going to be an issue for software giants like Adobe or Microsoft, but more specialized application companies are quite vulnerable in this economy.

It's at this point we're presented with a couple of choices. We can wish for those missing proprietary applications to magically appear on the Linux desktop. Perhaps instead, we can find ways around them altogether.

For Microsoft-specific documents where LibreOffice can destroy the formatting, try Microsoft's Office Live on Linux. If you're working on a video project for work but the special effects are lacking, try any of the freelance websites for help. I've had great success with this for projects needing After Effects. This has never cost me more than $50. Looking for accounting software? You simply need to know where to look.

My point is that there's more than one way to get something done in the software space. Unless your workplace is considered a "Microsoft shop," chances are your employer might be open to cost cutting measures using open source alternatives so long as you're up to the task of maintaining them effectively.

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